It’s the price of success this primary season: As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie surges in the polls in New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary, he has drawn the attention of front-runner Donald Trump, who has started aiming some well-placed barbs accusing Mr. Christie of being a party turncoat.
But Mr. Trump is fighting a multifront battle. He also has to deal with the rise of Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa, even as Mr. Cruz tries to fend off attacks from Sen. Marco Rubio, who in turn is fighting back attacks from erstwhile political friend and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The crowded Republican field is looking ever more like professional wrestling’s Royal Rumble, which pits more than a dozen fighters against one another in the same ring. The fighters can square off one on one or declare truces, with two of them ganging up to try to oust another.
As the election year dawns, five candidates already have been tossed from the ring, narrowing the field to a dozen, intensifying some of the one-on-one skirmishes and testing the limits of some of the alliances.
“The nastiness very well could ratchet up tenfold,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican Party strategist. “The two things to watch for are Donald Trump going ‘scorched earth’ on anyone that comes close to him in the polls, and the establishment circular firing squad in New Hampshire to see who is going to rise from the ashes.”
Mr. Trump is fighting to keep his place at the top of the polls in New Hampshire. This week, he laid into the New Jersey governor for embracing President Obama in 2012 in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
“I don’t call it a hug — I call it a hug mentally,” Mr. Trump said. “It was unbelievable. He was like a little boy: ‘Oh, I’m with the president.’ Remember, he flew in the helicopter and he was all excited to be [on] the helicopter. I said, I would have put you in my helicopter — it’s much nicer.”
Mr. Christie has shrugged off the attacks, saying he will see Mr. Trump in New Hampshire, host of the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 9. He has fired his own shots at Mr. Rubio, saying the first-term senator seems to be taking his day job lightly by missing votes on Capitol Hill as he campaigns for president.
“Dude, show up to work and vote no and if you don’t want to, then quit,” Mr. Christie said.
Mr. Rubio returned fire by saying Mr. Christie has been missing in action in New Jersey, where he remains governor even as he crosses the country to campaign.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich is targeting Mr. Bush, saying the former governor’s thinking is as obsolete as 1980s-era Betamax videotapes or the 1990s “Macarena” dance craze. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, is casting himself as the anti-Trump — even as his allies go after Mr. Rubio on his voting record and as a lightweight on national security.
Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said the candidates are at the stage where they can build support and survive the race only by chopping down rivals.
“Christie goes after Rubio in part because of the voters in New Hampshire. It looks like Christie’s last stand,” Mr. Madonna said. “After all, it’s an open primary and they need to both win or do well because Iowa is out of reach for Rubio and Christie.
“Trump also needs to win New Hampshire given that he could lose Iowa to Cruz,” he said. “Each of these strategies is situational and subject to change.”
Mr. Trump has been an Andre the Giant-like immovable force in the race, happily trading punches with anyone who attacks him, including candidates who have dropped out of the race and others whose poll ratings are dropping.
The dynamics of the race changed in mid-December when Mr. Cruz moved past Mr. Trump in polls in Iowa, where the Feb. 1 caucuses kick off the nomination contests.
Mr. Trump is running about 3 percentage points behind Mr. Cruz and more than 15 percentage points ahead of Mr. Rubio, in third place, according to the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polls.
The scenario has raised questions about where the Trump-Cruz “bromance” goes from here, given how Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz have shied away from trading punches.
Some of the New York billionaire’s recent comments — he labeled Mr. Cruz a “maniac” and told voters in Iowa that “not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba” — suggest that is about to change.
Mr. O’Connell said if Mr. Trump thinks he has a chance to win Iowa, he might go on the offensive. Otherwise, he will focus on his opponents in New Hampshire, where the Feb. 9 primary is turning out to be the key showdown for a glut of candidates.
Exit polls from the 2012 New Hampshire Republican primary serve as a reminder of how fluid the race can be, with 21 percent of voters saying they decided whom to support the day they hit the polls and 25 percent saying they made their pick in the “last few days” leading up to the contest.
As it stands, Mr. Trump leads the pack in New Hampshire with 26.5 percent of support in the polls, followed by a tight group of Mr. Rubio, 12.8 percent; Mr. Christie and Mr. Cruz, 11 percent; Mr. Kasich, 9 percent; and Mr. Bush, 7.8 percent.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at email@example.com.
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